Daniel Bryan is popular.
That statement does not need clarification. He is SO popular that John Cena and Randy Orton - the main event that has been rammed down our throats for the last few months (and, if you go back, the last ten years) - has not been the main focal point of the show, and has not been what people are tuning in for.
Daniel Bryan is 5ft 10. By wrestling standards, he's tiny. He's a former vegan, ten-time Slammy award winning, indie darling that doesn't fit in the traditional WWE picture.
Vince McMahon cares about only one thing: the bottom line.
You'll hear everyone, in every interview, no matter if it's pro or anti-McMahon, say the same thing about Vinny Mac. “He's a businessman.” What that loosely translates to is that he likes whatever makes him money.
Other superstars that did not 'fit the mould' include:
- Hall of Famer, 4 time world champion “Mr Wrestlemania” Shawn Michaels
- Hall of Famer, Triple Crown Champion, “vanilla midget” Eddie Guerrero
- Hall of Famer, 3 time world champion Mick Foley
- Rey Mysterio Jr, smallest WWE champion in history.
- Booker T, who dared to be black and good in the WWE
- Stone Cold Steve Austin, the violent redneck heel that you weren't supposed to like
What really counts is the amount of t-shirts, tickets and any other merchandise you can shift. That's why McMahon loves a catchphrase, it's something he can market. The storyline about “holding somebody back because they don't look the right way” is one we've seen used again and again. Michaels used it, Rey used it, CM Punk used it in the “Summer of Punk” and now we're seeing it used as perhaps the most dominant part in the Daniel Bryan storyline.
It's a great angle to work because you can pretty much keep pushing that story and people don't get tired of it. They get angry at the WWE, but that's okay because that's what we wanted. We want them to hate the heels and to love the faces, right? We want “the underdog vs the machine” because that's an angle that Joe Public can relate to. If the audience feels that the machine is holding them back (and who in a mostly working-class audience doesn't feel like that?) and the underdog can overcome adversity and rise to the top from having enough heart and skill, then maybe they can overcome the machine in their own lives. It's perfect storytelling. It's Austin vs. McMahon. It's the Million Dollar Man vs. ANYONE. We've seen it a lot, and that's because it works.
I was there when the modern Daniel Bryan character was born.
I was in the audience at Wrestlemania 28 in Miami. By this point I was already a certified Daniel Bryan fan. I had the t-shirt with the catchphrase that never quite took off. The “Everybody taps sooner or later” on a burgundy shirt. It was Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus for the World Heavyweight Championship.
The Wrestlemania audience is a weird one. It's half local Americans who see it as a Superbowl-esque pantomime event happening in their local city and visit it with their kids and enjoy John Cena's match. The other half is wrestling-crazy marks from all over the world, who have flown thousands of miles to see this event, to do the Axxess events, to do the Wrestlecon nearby and to have a whole week soaking up their favourite half-sport-half-athletic theatre.
But I was there! I'd flown from Manchester to Miami, Florida to be at the 'Showcase of the Immortals' and while I was looking forward to a lot of different things, one of the main things I was hoping for was to see some exceptional submission and mat-work from The American Dragon, Daniel Bryan. So imagine my surprise (and the surprise of every mark in the audience) when, after a sickening heel kiss to AJ, Bryan would turn round to eat a faceful of boot from “Irish Charisma Vacuum” Sheamus, and be covered for a three count squash.
It was then, that the YES! movement was born.
In disgust, the crowd reacted by ramping up the support for Daniel Bryan from subtle heel boos to “Yes! Yes! Yes!”.
To really get the full measure of what happened at Mania 28, you need to watch the Raw the following night at the American Airlines arena in downtown Miami. Post-Mania Raw is my favourite event of the entire year because what happens is that the casual fans go back to their jobs and their lives but the hardcore fans - who have flown to be there - see this as their last chance to see some WWE live action before they have to fly back to reality again.
What you get is an audience that is clued up, loud, energetic, smart, hard-to-manipulate, hard-to-bullshit and who will actually control the show in the way that the 'WWE Universe' is always being told that it controls the show. It's beautiful. Go and be a part of it if you get the chance.
Any plans that the WWE had to advance it's own storyline that night was trampled by the vast chorus of “YES!” chants that no amount of damage control, John Cena promos or special appearances by The Rock could fix.
The dark match that happened when Raw went off the air that night concluded in Daniel Bryan as part of a six man tag that was the most ecstatic goofing-off that you'll ever see, with everyone trying their hands at the “Yes point” at some point during that match and Bryan pretty much not getting a breather. Once the match was over, Bryan was able to speak to the audience and thank them for their support, confirming that they were going to let him have a new t-shirt now and encouraging the audience to keep chanting “Yes!”
And that's exactly what they did. For the next two years.
If Daniel Bryan is at the top of the show, competing in high-profile matches, main-eventing shows where the title isn't even on the line, then we're looking at the John Cena Paradox that made everyone so angry previously. CM Punk would talk in interviews about wanting to be in the position that John Cena was in. Where CM Punk was the WWE Champion and STILL DIDN'T GET TO HEADLINE WRESTLEMANIA. That's how you know you've made it.
The WWE World Heavyweight Title being just out of Bryan's grasp keeps the passion and keeps the story going. He's already at the top of the industry, and although we want to see him win the belt, as some kind of glorious climactic release for his 2 year tour de force across WWE from US champion to main event superstar but we don't actually want to see that.
He's earned it. He's fully earned the right to raise those belts above his head and shout “Yes! Yes! Yes!”. Batista hasn't earned it. There's been lots of WWE champions who haven't really earned it and they have unremarkable title reigns. As a storybook moment, we want to see Daniel Bryan win the title at Wrestlemania, and have his Wrestlemania moment but the WWE can and will milk his struggle for as long as they need to before he finally gets the belt.
In the last two years, we've moved Daniel Bryan from a position where he had to cheat and swerve his way to victory, to a position where he's become a 5ft 10 mountain of a man. A legitimate threat to whatever superstar he's facing.
Right now, I'm happy to have Daniel Bryan on our screens as the main attraction. A hard worker in his prime, working both Raw and Smackdown, involved in main event storylines, carrying the company when it really needs it, cementing his legacy, with or without leather and gold. Eventually this will lead to the inevitable match with HHH at Wrestlemania (if 'negotiations' with CM Punk fall through) and the storyline will have reached its full apex, and we can make the Bryan title race a legitimate thing.
Daniel Bryan with the world title within reach is something that we scream “Yes!” for but the underdog needs his struggle and triumph will only dim his star unless there's another impossible mountain for him to climb.